Interview Aubrey Lam

After working as a scriptwriter for the UFO studio and directing a first movie which attracted attention (Twelve Nights), director Aubrey Lam is back with her new movie, Hidden Track. François was lucky enough to meet this very charming lady and talk with her about her career, movies and opinion on various topics.

François: Could you please introduce yourself briefly and tell us what brought you to the movie industry?

Aubrey: I was both born and raised I Hong-Kong and actually, I had no plans to pursue films: it's hard to pay your bills when you are in the business. So I never thought of it. I majored at University in History and Political Science. My plan was either to work as a teacher or for the Government but then, things just turned out that I was not too fit for banks or oral skills and therefore I went to the States to study films and when I came back here, I tried to get into the business.

So I joined a training course organised by the directors' guild here with the sole purpose to get to know people rather than to learn anything. Because it was just a three months course: you don’t expect anything, just to get the connections. And I got connections through the courses and I worked as a fulltime scriptwriter in one of the quite good film companies by that time, UFO. So that’s how all started. Actually, from the very beginning, I wanted to be a director instead of a scriptwriter but I was told that it was the easier way so I started as a scriptwriter just by chance.

F: Do you think that your work as a scriptwriter at UFO was very important for your career?

A:Yes, very, very important for two reasons. First because I don't have much experience production-wise, you’ve got to have the consent from both the investors and the producers. But if you’re a scriptwriter, people will think “well, you can write a script”, of course you can direct the script you write. Second thing is that the most important for a director is to tell the story, keep the focus, and follow the script. It’s better for a director to start as a scriptwriter, that's what I think. Better than being a cinematographer, an editor, or a set-designer.

F: About your first movie, Twelve Nights: a lot of people can recognize themselves in one of the characters or some of the situations: did you use some of your personal experiences or experiences from people around you to write those characters?

A: Yes I did. When I wrote the script, my intention was to use very real situations that are not like a film, and a lot of dialogs, that was my intention. And it’s quite natural to put yourself into it when you write films so some of the lines had already been said (laughter) in real life, either by me or by other people I heard speaking, you know, from friends.

F: Both characters (Eason and Cecilia) they have their flaws, their defects, no-ne of them is perfect. What did you try to say about the failure of this story? No one in particular is guilty, both them are guilty, there isn't a good guy and a bad girl?

A: Exactly. Well, some people complained about the film saying they didn’t like the characters and they said they have flaws. What I mean was it’s not like an ordinary film where you have a protagonist that you consider good enough to want to be them. No, actually, they are flesh like you and me, they have flaws, and somehow you will forget them because they are human, that’s my purpose. Luckily, both Cecilia and Eason agreed to it so they wouldn’t say ‘Oh I don’t want to play that guy or something like that’. they rather cooperated with what the script told them to do.

F:Is it easy to convince a producer to give money to that kind of movie?
A: Luckily, I had Peter Chan as my producer and he liked the script himself. Anyway, it was a very small budget production so they didn’t expect sky-high revenues from the box-office, so they gave me a lot of freedom in my creation.
F: There’s a very striking scene in the movie: the one when Cecilia is explaining all her feelings and Eason is sleeping. Did you want to bring some originality and was it a way to express your fear that maybe the viewers of the movie could have fallen asleep?
Eason Chan and Cecilia Cheung
in 12 Nights
A: (laughter) Oh no, I never intended them to bore them to sleep. But actually, it happened once in my own experience but I was the one who slept. And also, it’s a scene from “Scenes of a Marriage” by Ingmar Bergman: not exactly the same but somehow the girl tries to read her diary and then the husband falls asleep. The scene was quite striking for me and it happened to me so I was thinking: when the love fades away, the most cruel thing is that the other part could kill us and that’s the main thing I wanted to talk about. So when you are very much in love and you cry your heart out, it’s totally nothing in front of the other part when he doesn’t love you anymore. The same happens to you: it doesn’t mean that you’re always the one who’s the victim but somehow, you’re the one who causes pain to the other. So that’s why the ending is the balance of power, actually that scene is the most important one in my movie, that’s the part I liked most. About love, about so-called love . What is it? It’s just flood: it goes and goes.


F: You talked about Ingmar Bergman as your inspiration so I guess you’re a movie lover. Now that you’re a director do you see movies differently than before when you were just a viewer?

A: Well actually, I didn’t see the movie after it was released because I had seen it hundred times, you can understand that. But by looking back, I know I can do a lot better because I like experience, a lot of things can be improved and especially on the technical side, it’s very rough and coarse from what I see. But on the script side, I was said that something can be done after the following scene because a lot of people would question why Eason would suddenly fall back to Cecilia and what happened between. So it seems there is a hole and I didn’t recognize it but somehow I suggest something into it. Otherwise, it would have lost its meaning, why changes?

F: And about movies from other people, do you think them as a director and scriptwriter?

A: Yes. I will say: Oh I can think of that scene but some directors can surprise you, I can never imagine a scene like this. Only after you try to be a director, you know the difficulties on the location area. You see things differently.

F: Does it make you lose the pleasure of watching movies?
A: No, I can do both, I can enjoy the film at the same time.
F: Was it hard to get Ronald Cheng, Stephen Fung and Nicholas Tse doing small characters in the movie?
A: The producer asked them to play those small parts for me (laughter). And they know the parts are OK for them. Actually, I think they liked the part they played. When I read interviews after the film was released, they liked to be in my movie.
F: So now, your new movie: Hidden Track. Could you tell us briefly about the story and what you like about it ?

A: Hidden Track is very different from Twelve Nights, that’s why I wanted to shoot it: that’s quite natural because you don’t want to repeat things you have already tried, that’s why I want a totally different style of movie. It’s not realistic, it’s a little bit detached, romanticized but the picture of the situation, of the society, is real: that’s what I wanted to achieve. The situation, the people’s conditions are real but somehow, I use another method to review the reality. I was quite excited when I shot the movie because I never tried before and I didn’t know what the result would be. Somehow, you’re walking on the edge, you’re excited, you’re feeling insecure when doing it because you don’t know what the result will be.

F: As you are the origin of the project: how did you meet the people at Jin Chuan Pictures?

A: Oh, it’s a long story because the original idea is totally different, it was about jerks. It was a very stylish, very mean movie but Teddy didn’t like it and then we tried to change it. Then I thought about men with music, made it more coated, commercial. The structure is based on the book by Italo Calvino: 'If on A Winter's Night, A Traveller'. It’s about a reader who tries to read a book and after ten pages, he changes to another book to read the second story and then he is soaked in this story and he doesn’t care about the first story. And then he goes to the bookstore to look for the second story but somehow, he gets a second book, again after ten pages, it’s the first story and it goes on and on and on. I found it tricky and I used this structure to put it into my film: looking for a CD, looking from one CD to another CD. One kind of music represents one kind of man, it makes the whole thing more interesting. So we’re not talking about so called jerks but different kind of people: not just men, they can be men, they can be women, somehow we can find them in society right now. For me when I heard from my female friends it’s just so difficult to fall in love. Well, I think the same thing: I just want to fall in love, I just want to find a regular guy. But there is no such thing. so that’s how it comes. Things are so weird now in the society and I want to talk about it. You can't find something really basic now it’s all gone, there’s no basic thing here anymore.

F: For Hidden Track, you have the concept of the CD and for Twelve Nights, you had the concept of the 12 nights: is it important for you to have a concept for your movies instead of just A meets B and they fall in love and blah blah blah?

A: I need to have a very special structure for my movies, Peter Chan agrees with me. He said what I wanted to talk about was too trivial for a commercial movie, and I had to get an attractive structure to get the money and also get the audience and that’s just what I’m doing now. Because what I talk about is really not interesting in a commercial point of view, therefore you need something to make things you know: “oh, it’s so colourful”, then people are interested. That’s what I’m doing now.

F: The Chinese title has a very direct reference to the Taiwanese singer Jay Chou: who had this idea and is it easy to have such a name attached to your project?

A: No. Actually at the very beginning, I chose a very ordinary female singer in Hong-Kong but Teddy said “no one cares about that singer” (laughter). But my original idea was I’m looking for something very ordinary but somehow ordinary doesn’t exist. He said that commercially, it wouldn’t work so we changed to Faye Wong and then from Faye Wong to Jay Chou. I think Jay Chou is the best because he’s an idol, a dream lover for a lot of fans and so I thought it matches with my film: looking for a man, looking for something idolized so Jay Chou is pretty suitable for this movie.

F: And do you like his music?

A: a lot…

Aubrey Lam
F: Why did you work with Jin Chuan Pictures and not another studio?

A: Because I started the project here with Teddy: that’s how. We changed a lot of ideas. I think we have discussed about half a year already before I actually wrote the script, so that’s how it began. Because the eight jerks story goes back to four-five years ago when I discussed it with Teddy and then suddenly he founded a company and he asked me: “how about we do eight jerks?” That’s how it began.

F: Do you think Jin Chuan is some kind of extension of UFO? To me UFO was split in two, Applause Pictures, with Peter Chan, something more panasian and Jin Chuan which is more Chinese?

A: Yes. It’s different because their focus is more on the mainland and that’s how the trend goes. I think it is good because we have more money from China and it means you have more freedom when shooting a film. Peter doesn’t quite like the mainland thing, he’s quite mainland-phobia (laughter): he doesn’t want to go to mainland, he doesn’t want to discuss with mainlanders so you can never try things like that with Peter Chan but here with Jin Chuan you can.

F: You said “more money, more freedom” but aren’t you afraid of censorship?

A: Strangely enough, they didn’t have much to say about the script: excepting one or two lines, it was acceptable, quite unexpectedly.

F: Twelve Nights was quite an anti-romantic story and this one seems more enjoyable, more commercial. Was it mandatory for you to do something more commercial?
Cecilia Cheung in 12 Nights

A: No, it’s painful for me but I don’t know what is commercial anyway. I want people to enjoy the film. If it’s boring I don’t want it. I want to make it interesting enough that you want to see the whole movie. But I don’t mind if it’s more commercial to them. Actually, I don’t like the ending because in the ending you find what you like but for me it’s not real; somehow it’s just like: “do what you want at 100%” and somehow, it’s like a fairy tale: I don’t mind because it’s not a realistic movie. Even if it has a so-called happy ending, it doesn’t mean it has a happy ending. Well actually, after the movie, the producer Teddy said it was too sad for him: I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. I can’t see things too naively and tell you everything is okay: no. Even if you are happy, you have to go through a lot of tears: that’s how I see reality but they are different, they just want people to love, be happy the whole process and I just can't go with it: that’s so-called commercial. No, I don’t buy that.

F: But as we said everybody has to pay the bills. Would you like to have a career like Clint Eastwood, or even Johnnie To, making two or three commercial films to have the money and then they have the freedom to make something more personal.

A: A PTU like you mean? I think he’s very talented and he can do that because not everyone can do that. You see what I mean? I can go commercial, and I can go uncommercial. No. You can’t say: Oh I want this film to be commercial and you can get a lot of box-office: no. He can do that but maybe I can’t.

F: So what are your plans for the future?

A: I have two projects in hand but nothing substantial, I really don’t know. I think: well, if I can make one more movie then it’s my luck, I don’t have a very specific plan. Actually, my ambition is not that big. As long as I can make movies that I like, I think it’s all good for me.

F: Do you think the box-office of Hidden Track will have an influence on your next movie?

A: Actually, I don’t know how to position myself. Either you go to the arty films, or you go the commercial films. Definitely I can't go to the commercial films. Do I want to go to the so-called arty films? I really don’t want too, because I want a lot of people to see my movie. Because when you make a movie, you want people to enjoy it. For the so-called arty films, you get a lot of awards but not a lot of people see your movie: I’m not satisfied with that. Maybe I’ll just go between all the time and it’s very difficult because you can’t please both and you have to please yourself in the very beginning. But that’s how I am, I don’t think I can change for the meantime: maybe after several years I’ll change but not now.

F: The main actress, Popo, is unknown in HK and she doesn’t have any experience in acting: could you tell us more about her and was it easy to work with a newcomer?
Popo in Hidden Track

A: In the beginning I thought it was easy because she’s very fresh, and timid and seems like she’s agreeable and she seems to look like my character so I thought that if she’s relaxed in front of the camera, then everything is fine. But somehow in the middle of the film, I found she’s a little bit different from what I thought: she’s not actually what the character is. When you work with her, she’s quite stubborn and sad: I thought she was a very happy, simple girl but she’s not and somehow this personality soaked into the character and that’s not what I wanted to. But somehow, you can't stop it, it’s just that person when you speak, when she speaks a line: you can't change the whole person, that’s what I think. You see what I mean ? You can't change the whole person. You have to choose the right person to do the right part. That’s the most difficult thing because in the middle of the film I found she’s not my character, she’s not a very happy person, she is not very straight forward, she thinks about a lot of things before she decides to do things but that’s the best choice I can have. I mean, all through the casting. I can't really complain, because she was the best already.

F: And for the young guys, there are not so many promising young actors in HK nowadays but you managed to get the two most promising ones: Daniel Wu and Shawn Yu. Could you tell us about your collaboration with them?
Shawn Yu in Hidden Track

A: Actually, Shawn Yu hasn’t done a comedy before but I know him before he got famous so I know that in his real life, he’s a very funny guy and I know he can play the part. I'm more than happy about what he did in the movie, actually everybody thinks he’s doing well for his part and he has improved a lot in these few years. I think it’s good for him to try different things: you know, he’s not just good at serious stuff like Infernal Affairs, you can still do other things and I’m quite surprised that he can really do more than I expect. And he was happy to look like shit in the movie (laughter) because he has to be a very handsome guy all the time and it’s a good try not to be so handsome but somehow you can’t always be so attractive. I think he stands out in the movie and that’s good for him.

F: And Daniel?

A: Oh, he’s very funny because he’s so manly. He plays a man who always listens to his mother so it’s totally anti-romantic again. Also in the beginning, people, you know like the female lead, she falls in love with him, he is a great man, and somehow he turns out to be just like less than a man. And it’s very real actually, I see a lot of people who appear to be what we call "tai lam yan", a big man, that is very masculine but deep down, they are not as brave as they appear. It’s one kind of man I want to talk about in the movie.

F: Daniel told us in a recent interview that he doesn't like to play hero, but rather weak characters, or people with flaws. Do you think he feels kind of unsecured in Hong Kong?

F: I think he is unsecured because his mother tongue is not Cantonese, and it affects a lot on his acting. But he really likes movies, because he wants to direct, that's what I heard. HE is really serious about these things. That's why he wants to play different things, and not only heroes. But for some people, they just want to look good in the movie. But he is different, he is good. He agreed to play this part and shows that he doesn't care about the so called image. Actually he is not a singer, and it gives him more freedom.

F: Did you find yourself lucky to find actors who agree to take risks with their own image?

A: Yeah, I guess I’m lucky. I knew Shawn Yu before hand and he likes Twelve Nights. Actually, he doesn’t like the script of Hidden Track but he said “I believe in you so if you think it’s good, ok I’ll try that”. Also he said “Oh I want to try something different” and that’s how it goes. I think that after the movie, he liked the part he played and he quite enjoyed it on the location so I’m glad that he likes it and I hope he likes the whole movie because he sacrificed a lot (laughter)

F: I saw the teaser on the internet first and this one was very surprising. Who had the idea to make a teaser like that with animation parts?

A: It was done by Cheung Chi Kong, the executive producer of this movie, because while the teaser was made, I was shooting and the idea came from him because we cannot use any footages before censorship of the mainland have approved of it and that’s how it comes, we could only use pictures(laughter). Cheung Chi Kong is very good at this because he has experience in animations and stuff like that and I think he has done a very good job for the teaser.

F: Do you think the teaser fits the movie?

A: No, it’s not exactly the same thing but the trailer is closer. The teaser is too light but somehow it will attract people’s attention: “Oh what kind of movie is it?” and then the trailer will tell you more. And I would say even the trailer is not exactly the film(laughter), you have to see the film…

F: Do you think you could write about love relationships during all your career?

A: I’m not sure. I want to write something else but it seems like it’s more easy to have a project “Ok, green light” when I write a so-called love story, something about relationships, about life. But because it has to fall into some kind of genre, either a thriller, an action movie or a comedy or a love story, it’s difficult to persuade people to invest money. So what I'm good at is so called relationship, love stories, so you have to stick with it. Well actually, I want to shoot a thriller if I can (laughter) but not really for the meantime.

F: Do you think you are writing about love relationships because you are looking for one?

A: Yes because love life is a large part of my life, I find life so boring you know (laughter). So boring: repetition all the time, even love is repetition. But somehow, you’ll find even worse so that’s how it is. I think there are only two things that are enjoyable: love and creation. And without each one, you don’t want to live.

F: Maybe you will stop to write about love relationships once you’ll have a very stable relation…

A: I don’t think I will ever have a stable relation (laughter). Never…

F: Being a female director in Hong-Kong nowadays: is it more an advantage or disadvantage?

A: I think it’s an advantage because it’s rare. When people think “Oh, female directors, we have less than 5”, you get all the attention and the people are more lenient to us women. Well, it can be a sad thing, but I don't care. You have got advantage because people think you are weak so they don’t push us too much (laughter). Ah, it’s quite funny…

F: A few months ago, we asked Carol Lai why HK female directors seem to have more personal, more original message to carry in their movies. What’s your opinion about this?

A: Because they don’t have a channel to express themselves, it’s all a men’s world. When you go to movies, they talk about men and even some female directors talk about men things. You find an urge to speak something that is not spoken in HK so that’s why it becomes so personal, because you have no choice.

F: Thanks a lot!

A: You are welcome.

All our thanks to Dana for his kind help, and to Aubrey Lam for her availability.

  • October 2003